In 2018, Canada became the 2nd largest country to legalize recreational cannabis, next to the US. Analysts at the time predicted that by 2019, the North American cannabis market alone would be worth over $16 billion.
This market was worth $8 billion in 2017 and is projected to hit a value of around $24.5 billion by 2021, and $35 billion by 2023. To say “business was booming” and will continue to boom may be considered a gross understatement.
While the business outlook certainly paints a very bright picture, the widespread legalization of cannabis in the US and Canada has led to unexpected and often perpetual supply shortages, and even sales declines in certain states, as a result.
Producers and investors are locked into arguments about what can be done to help the cannabis industry scale up production and meet the growing demand.
Other, Non-conventional Ways of Producing Cannabis
One way of producing the chemical compounds found in cannabis (cannabinoids) is the single-celled fungi, yeast. After all, it’s the linchpin of the beer, wine and bread markets, so why not cannabis?
The whole idea of bringing yeast into the picture to produce two of the most common cannabinoids in cannabis, CBD and THC, started to gain steam after a paper published in early 2019 explained the concept. A team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley genetically engineered yeast to transform sugars into CBD and THC – creating a bit of a stir in the marijuana production world because the success of this ‘experiment’ challenged the conventional way of cultivating marijuana, which in contrast, requires the actual plant.
How Yeast is used to produce Cannabinoids
When sugars are fed to yeast, they produce alcohol through fermentation. By changing up the main enzymes through genetic engineering and adding a few ‘intermediates’, scientists can get the yeast to produce CBGA (cannabigerolic acid), which acts as the same precursor made by cannabis plants in order to produce the active compounds on cannabinoids, THC and CBD. From here on, the precursor may be treated with specific enzymes in order to produce the end products, i.e. the desired cannabinoids.
If we think about it, as the human species, we would downright be miserable without yeast. We simply wouldn’t have the same quality of bread as we have today – and there are many, many people out there who can’t bear the thought of living without beer and wine, which both need yeast to transform sugar in order to produce alcohol.
Researchers now have their best lab coats on and are experimenting with yeast to manufacture two of the key cannabinoid compounds which are responsible for many of the plant’s “oh so wonderful effects” – CBD and THC.
It’s actually a very clever process in the grand scheme of things to methodically handpick and recreate many of the cannabis plants unique compounds. As an added bonus, this can also help us understand the Cannabis sativa plant’s true potential.
So how does the process work?
Two different yeasts can produce either CBD or THC, depending on the kind of enzyme they carry. However, more importantly, both will carry the cannabis genes that produce CBGA – which is considered the ‘mother of all cannabinoids’.
Now, to make THC, for instance – the yeast produces CBGA, which then transforms into THCA. How? By using that yeast’s specific enzyme. For the CBD yeast, its specific enzyme will transform CBGA into CBDA. So now, we have THCA and CBDA – the precursors which will lead to the production of THC and CBD once heat is applied.
The end part isn’t really all that different from what happens in the cannabis plant when cannabinoids are extracted through conventional means. If you ate cannabis in its raw form, you won’t get high because you’re mostly just ingesting the THC precursor, THCA. Only when heat is applied do you feel the euphoric effects, because now the THCA has converted to THC, which is psychoactive. However, tiny amounts of THCA will convert to THC anyway with the passage of time (curing).
The very reason that cannabis companies and researchers are suddenly very interested in other ways of producing cannabinoids is because, apart from the high production cost, they have been unable to keep up with demand. Additionally, working with the source plant can be complex and messy.
Growing the plant is a cumbersome process that requires a lot of time, patience, water and power (for indoor growing). Plus, extracting specific cannabinoids from the flower can be cumbersome.
For example, if you’re end goal is to extract CBD only – which is for many growers as this cannabinoid has become very popular over the years for its health promoting effects without the intoxication – there’s an inherent risk of the extract getting contaminated with THC.
As one might imagine, this is a growing concern for mainstream cannabis brands who must extract CBD in its purest form to provide users with the therapeutic and medicinal benefits. Some of these benefits include treating epilepsy and the after effects of cancer treatment, as well as relief from pain, stress and anxiety.
Therefore, having a vast supply of yeast to churn out pure levels of CBD, for instance, can massively simplify the production process and save costs – because being able to produce CBD in a completely uncontaminated way would be a very valuable asset to any cannabis producer or grower. This is why you’ll see many brands on the market with low-moderate levels of THC in their CBD supplements and products – conventional production processes can leave traces of THC.
Yeast is just one way of changing this for good.
The benefits do not end here. Yeast that can produce cannabinoids might also give scientists and researchers further insights into studying cannabis – because we’re discussing a wildly complex plant here with well over 100 cannabinoids which have been discovered thus far.
Some of these compounds are more common than others – with modern and mainstream strains being packed with THC – in an increasing trend, cultivators are now producing and fine-tuning their strains for higher intoxication effects.
The Future of Alternative Cannabis Production: Genetic Modification
Genetic modification is a massive field with applications spanning across many industries to date. One of those is the cannabis industry, where the world’s first ‘GMO weed plant’ was successfully manufactured by Trait Biosciences in 2019.
The prospect of genetic modification is extremely exciting to say the least, because it could pave the way for industrial-scale production of cannabinoids which boast a lot of pharmaceutical potential.
The Cannabis sativa plant is the only known plant to produce THC. However, it still remains an imperfect vessel to produce the psychoactive cannabinoid on an industrial scale.
THC is typically found in fairly limited outgrowths from the cannabis plant known as trichomes – this means that the stalk, stems and leaves are nothing more than biomass waste.
Genetic engineering can potentially be a very efficient and cost-effective alternative. Efforts are already underway by some biotech companies and researchers to replace marijuana plants with microorganisms genetically modified to produce THC, CBD and a host of other cannabinoids which may be of pharmaceutical interest.
Other cannabis producing companies are trying to come up with ways of modifying chemical synthesis in the plant by genetically tinkering with its cells so that the desired molecules can be made from shoot to tip – with the result being a much higher yield than what most companies and growers can currently produce, on average.
No matter how we look at it, the goal is the same – to produce cannabinoids in a cheaper, more efficient and reliable way, as opposed to the conventional plant cultivation in greenhouse or farmer’s fields method.
Another major benefit of microbial synthesis is the ability to mass-produce lesser known cannabinoids which are present in the plant in very small amounts – or for that matter, even molecules which are not found in the plant naturally. Transgenic plants, for example, can be engineered for vastly superior resistance to pests and other environmental burdens.
Closing Thoughts on Alternative Methods of Producing Cannabinoids
The attractive proposition of using yeast or bioreactors instead of the traditional greenhouses to extract cannabinoids squarely comes down to cost.
On average, a kilogram of premium-quality CBD extracted from plants the conventional way can sell for over $5,000, wholesale. However, a Boston-based synthetic-bio company and a Toronto-based cannabis produced struck a deal in 2018 – where a plan was proposed to produce pure CBD and other cannabinoids for under $1,000 per kilo of yeast.
The cost-savings alone are practically off the charts.
Furthermore, we believe that bio-manufacturing cannabis through non-conventional means can help growers attain a level of consistency that is simply not possible to replicate in traditional methods – because like almost any agricultural commodity, marijuana plants are also subjected to weather elements, pests and other environmental hazards.
Laboratory-based production may potentially be better for the environment as well because less energy is required to power up a bioreactor than to power up the ventilation fans and grow lights of an indoor facility.